Known as "medicinal mushrooms" by traditional and folk medicine practitioners and often termed as "mushroom nutraceuticals" by manufacturers of dietary supplements, these superfoods are now referred to as "adaptogenic mushrooms" for their role in the body's natural adaptation or immunity functions.
The term adaptogens have been given to varieties of organic functional fungi (the category of organisms that include mushrooms) that have been used in Ayurvedic and traditional medicines for thousands of years. Science has joined ancient wisdom and has isolated and identified compounds in various species of organic functional mushrooms that help aid physical and mental health and support the immune system.
Since the start of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, organic functional mushrooms have been in high demand as safe and natural immune-boosting superfoods.
The Journal of Nutrition published the proceedings of the 2013 Mushrooms and Health Summit, which reported the advances in research specific to the role of mushrooms in a healthful diet and health promotion in general.
According to the summit, organic functional mushrooms are nutritious, low in calories and fat and contain modest amounts of fiber and various nutrients. They are a good source of B vitamins that help you convert proteins, carbohydrates and fats into energy.
Organic functional mushrooms are also a good source of D vitamins that are involved in calcium absorption, immune function and protecting bone, muscle and heart health. They also contain a wealth of antioxidant compounds that are known for protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals and those associated with diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
According to a 2017 study conducted at the Pennsylvania State University and published in the journal Food Chemistry, organic functional mushrooms contain unusually high amounts of the antioxidant ergothioneine, known for preventing wrinkles and reducing signs of aging and sun damage, and the "master antioxidant" glutathione, the most important redox regulator that controls inflammatory processes.
The more interesting properties of organic functional mushrooms are their non-nutritive plant substances – polysaccharides, indoles, polyphenols and carotenoids in which cell and animal studies have shown antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.
See below the health benefits of different organic functional mushrooms.
Revered in traditional medicine as the "mushroom of immortality," reishi mushroom acts as an immune potentiator and immune modulator. It helps balance and regulate an overactive immune system. Also known as lingzhi in China and considered as a "superior adaptogen," reishi mushroom is commonly used to support healthy and restful sleep.
A study published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushroom in 2014 reported the powerful analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial effects of the reishi medicinal mushroom and its main compounds. (Related: Reishi mushrooms offer help for those with rheumatoid arthritis.)
According to a study published in the journal Molecules in 2013, Ganoderma lucidum is the most widely studied mushroom for its hepatoprotective effects against liver damage.
A study published in PLOS One in 2019 described chaga mushroom as a powerful adaptogen that modulates the immune system. It is loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to help the body fight inflammation and scavenge free radicals
Another study published in the Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine in 2011 has shown that this functional mushroom can be used to fight off viral infections, prevent aging of the heart muscle and possibly prevent and treat cancer.
Getting its name from its fluffy mane-like appearance, lion's mane mushroom is traditionally used by Buddhist monks to stay focused while meditating.
A study published in Tetrahedron Letters has shown that the hericenones and erinacines of this edible medicinal fungi exhibit the promotion of nerve growth factor, a protein that helps neurons in the central and peripheral nervous system regenerate. Some evidence suggests supplementing with lion's mane helps improve focus and boosts concentration levels and memory in healthy individuals and patients with mild cognitive impairment.
This mushroom grows in autumn-color rings resembling feathers and is one of the best-studied types of organic functional mushrooms because of its krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP) content.
A study published in Oncotarget in 2018 showed that PSK and PSP stimulate the immune system by both activating and inhibiting specific types of immune cells and by suppressing inflammation.
A study published in Discovery Medicine in 2017, demonstrated that due to their ability to naturally strengthen the immune system, PSK and PSP are commonly used as anticancer agents in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation in countries like Japan and China.
A study published in the Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry in 2017 detected over 35 different phenolic compounds in a sample of turkey tail mushroom extract, along with the flavonoid antioxidants quercetin and baicalein that promote immune system health by reducing inflammation and stimulating the release of protective compounds.
This mushroom is tan to dark brown in color, have broad umbrella-shaped caps, wide open veils, tan gills and curved stems that should be removed. Shiitake mushrooms are the most common edible, medicinal fungi and one of the most valuable, both nutritionally and flavor-wise. Shiitakes have a meaty texture and are rich in savory and woodsy flavors when cooked.
The proteins in shiitake are composed of 18 amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine) that are involved in tissue growth, energy production, immune function and nutritional absorption. Of these amino acids, shiitake is especially rich in leucine and lysine, which are deficient in many grains. For people on a vegetarian diet, shiitake represents an excellent protein supplement.
Researchers have found over 30 enzymes in shiitake. Two enzymes of particular note are amylase, which is important for proper digestion; and cellulase, which dissolves fiber. The wealth of enzymes in shiitake can help with the deficiencies of these important compounds.
Shiitake contains significant quantities of the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. In its sun-dried form, it has the highest content of vitamin D of any plant food.
Several clinical trials show that lentinan, an immunomodulating glucan extracted from shiitake mushrooms, helps increase the survival rate of patients with stomach, prostate, colorectal and liver cancers when combined with therapy. Lentinan has been approved as a biological response modifier for the treatment of gastric cancer in Japan.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2015 showed that consuming shiitake mushrooms daily improves human immunity.
Also known as golden needle mushrooms, lily mushrooms or enokitake, these mushrooms have long, thin or spindly stems with small, button-shaped caps that can be eaten raw or cooked. Mostly found in Japan, China and Korea, enoki mushrooms are one of the first fungi studied for cancer.
A study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology in 2016 demonstrated that enoki mushrooms are not only a great source of nutrients but also possess tremendous potential in pharmaceutical drug development. Many bioactive constituents, including carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, glycoproteins, phenols and sesquiterpenes, were isolated from different parts of the mushroom. These compounds exhibited various biological activities, such as anti-tumor and anti-cancer and anti-hypertensive activities.
Oyster mushrooms look like fan-shaped delicate caps that can be gray, pale yellow or blue, with a soft velvety texture.
A study published in Mycobiology in 2010 reported that oyster mushrooms are a good source of dietary fiber and biologically active compounds with various therapeutic activities, including the ability to modulate the immune system, decrease blood lipid concentrations, prevent high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, as well as hypoglycemic and antithrombotic activities. These valuable nutrients include seven phenolic compounds (gallic acid, chlorogenic acid, naringenin, hesperetin, formononetin and biochanin-A) and the amino acid ergothioneine – all of which have powerful antioxidant effects.
Oyster mushrooms have a healthy amount of beta-glucans – polysaccharides that are claimed to have benefits for cholesterol and blood sugar management, and boosting the immune system.
Tremella mushrooms, also known as white fungi, snow fungi, silver ears, snow ears, white wood ears and white jelly mushrooms, contain the most D vitamins out of any food source on the planet and also have a great amount of fiber and antioxidants. The tremella supplement is popular among those who are going through chemotherapy.
Recent studies, including a study published in Molecular Medicine Reports in 2017 have indicated that the medicinal and tonic properties of tremella mushrooms are due to its polysaccharides, which have anti-inflammation, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer and immunoprotective properties.
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